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Tuesday April 24th, 2012  
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Quote of the Week
"It's unfortunate but necessary that we turn to the courts to protect this extraordinary landscape."
- Gordon Petersen  


John Kinnear photo
Mine rescue team emerging from Balmer North
Looking Back - John KinnearAccording to Deputy Chief Inspector R.B.Bonar it travelled 4400 feet in 3 seconds. That’s 996 miles per hour. That's how fast the blast was going that hit those 22 miners going into the Balmer North Mine 45 years ago on April 3rd, 1967. With it came all sorts of debris from deep inside. Power cables, timbers, chunks of coal and rock, conveyor belting and a toxic cloud of smoke and gases. Those Michel miners had literally climbed into the wrong end of a gun barrel and fate pulled the trigger at the other end.
How cruel and ironic that had that blast occurred just minutes earlier those men would still be outside and probably lived. Yet it also follows that had that afternoon shift crew been further in the mine more than fifteen would surely have died. This terrible disaster struck at the Michel\Natal\Sparwood community only nine days after a tragic car crash had taken the lives of seven of its own. An already numbed community was then forced to endure the pain that Coal Creek, Spring Hill, Hillcrest, Coalhurst, Bellevue and a host of other mining communities had suffered in the past. The event that every mother and wife lived in dread of. That day when their man doesn't come home from the mine. I saw that dread in my own mother's eyes many years ago. The sight of a Vicary Mine crew bus passing by our house at the wrong time of day was enough to strike fear in her heart; for there were four of our family working underground at one point in time.
The mines mostly took them one or two at a time. A cave-in here, a bump there. They whittled away at the men slowly, inexorably year after year, unnerving everyone with each fatality. Always hidden in the back of the mind was the thought that it had been a while and who would it claim next.
One man's story from Balmer North is that of Jerry Clarke. Jerry was one of those ten injured in the first few hundred feet of Balmer North's return airway. A Coleman man, Jerry had worked underground most of his life. He was born in Bankhead (an old coal mining town in Banff National Park) in 1911 and eventually came to the Pass and worked at the International Coal and Coke Company mine in Coleman. When the International was struggling with work one or two days a week in 1955 Clarke moved on to Coal Creek Mines in Fernie until their closure in 1957.
He then went to work in Michel and had been there about ten years when Balmer blew. Jerry sustained extremely serious head injuries including a fractured skull that day as did the other nine.
In fact almost all the fatalities in that killer rock tunnel were from head injuries; testimony to the deadly clutter contained within that whirlwind from hell. He was rushed to the Michel Hospital then and within 48 hours found himself being examined by a neurosurgeon in the Calgary General Hospital.
It took over 100 stitches to close up the wounds in his head and his daughter Gerri Gettman tells me he carried around Michel "shrapnel" from the blast until the day he died.
The last thing Jerry remembers from that day was hanging onto a timber and hollering at the continuous miner crew he worked with to "run for it". While hospitalized he continued to ask and worry about a young miner named Fred Churla who worked with him. What he finally came to realize was that Fred didn't make it to work that day thereby escaping certain injury and possibly even death. A twist of fate saved one of the finest hockey players ever to step onto a Pass rink ice.
The news of the other two Coleman fatalities, Ronald Freng and Walter Gibalski (a close personal friend) was kept from him for some time. Jerry underwent, as did others injured that day, a personality change from the severe head trauma. Gerri, his daughter says this quiet placid man became moody and prone to outbursts.
Jerry Clarke went underground only one more day after recovering to prove to himself and the Workman’s Compensation Board that he could. He wanted to go back underground but was refused and spent the next eight years working above ground at the Michel Mine assay lab until his retirement in 1976. While Jerry Clarke passed away in 1977, a full ten years after that fateful day, his family has always maintained his injuries from 1967 contributed to his early death at the age of sixty six.†
There were other fatalities in other Michel mines that year. And the year before. And the year after. In 1969 a flood in Balmer #1 Mine claimed three and left three others including Frank Kutcher trapped for a horrific 84 hours until their rescue. That's three and a half days of hell wondering if they would be found in time. But that's another amazing story.
As I said it has been 45years since that terrible day but the memories are as fresh as ever for many. I guess some of us might have thought that Balmer North would be the last bad one. Then Westray reared its ugly, tragic head in 1992. Let's hope it was the last time a Canadian underground coal mine was to take such an awful toll.
As a third generation miner my thoughts these last few weeks have been with the families of those who lost loved ones and those who survived. A tribute to all those lost can be found on a website posted by Ron Venzi.
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